Why Satyajit Ray's ‘Sadgati’ Gets the Hindutvawadi’s Goat

A full 40 years after its release, this wiry little film yet hits the religious fanatic hard between the eyes today.

A recent user review on IMDb of Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981) makes no bones about the viewer’s take on the film Satyajit Ray had been commissioned to make for the Indian public broadcaster, Doordarshan. “Worst movie I ever watched,” the reviewer – a north Indian male, as the name and the photograph accompanying the comments suggest – solemnly asserts. In his highly distinctive style, the gentleman then goes on to explain why he feels that way:

“No doubt Satyajit Ray was the first film maker who started Hinduphobia in Bollywood. I agree there was some exploitation of Poor’s done by Brahmin. But only Brahmin did so? Exploitation happening from birth of living and it will be there till last living thing present on earth….” (and more such wise words in the same vein).

A poster for ‘Sadgati’.

Amusing? I dare say no. Revealing? Most certainly yes. The comments shine a light on an ascendant trend in India’s cultural politics today. Even now, some of us make the mistake of thinking that such views reside in the margins of public opinion. The fact is, the margins have become so bloated as to squeeze out altogether any space in the middle. We would be deluding ourselves if we were to believe that a film like Sadgati could hope to show in theatres across the country today. As for Doordarshan producing another Sadgatilike film in 2021, well, if wishes were horses…

For, recall the episode in which Ghasiram, the village priest, delivers Dukhi the chamar’s corpse to the landfill outside the village, among putrefying animal carcasses and sewer sludge. Recall the shots leading up to that final ‘deliverance’: the portly, barebodied priest chuffing, puffing as he drags the lassoed Dukhi heavily across a wide, open, slushy field; heaving Dukhi over the steep slope to send him crashing to his final ‘resting place’; the sinister half-light draping this macabre deliverance, so that the viewer never knows if it is daybreak or the day’s end (though a single crowing cock suggests dawn may be approaching); the sky beginning to clear up – approvingly? – even as the priest trudges back home, weary but contented – because his job is done.

It is impossible to emerge from a viewing of Sadgati except feeling numbed, gutted. The proud Hindutva warrior-turned-film critic is dead right: Sadgati the movie is indeed a searing indictment of the version of Hinduism he feels called upon to passionately defend. Films built around far less astringent critiques of Indian society have been judged guilty: of lighting the fuse for an all-out assault on the Bharatiya way of life, among other things. In 1981, Sadgati was luckier by far.           

Ray’s critique proves all the more devastating because of the extraordinary economy of expression that he brings into play. Think of the frothy moralistic flummery to which Ghasiram treats his two devout visitors – one of them a recently widowed young man. The Brahmin goes on grandly about man’s life being but tattered clothes to be flung away so that the divine can manifest itself. He then subtly, imperceptibly, changes tack, and waxes eloquent about the need for a second, if necessary a third, marriage – all for the purpose of holy procreation. This is phoney cant, of course, as revolting as a stale mackerel, but not for a moment does Ray allow it to look, or sound, one bit like a lampoon. There is not one word, one twitch of an eyebrow, or a wave of the hand that is exaggerated here. The whole episode is so tightly constructed as to be perfectly plausible, even compelling, and this adds greatly to the scene’s subversive capability.

Also read: Celebrating Satyajit Ray in Times of Rising Intolerance in Bengal

Or recall how the Brahmin proceeds to cleanse and sanctify his backyard after Dukhi’s polluting remains have been satisfactorily disposed of. He does it matter-of-factly, nonchalantly, like he performs his countless daily chores. He pretty much killed a man – someone who had instinctively put his faith in the Brahmin’s sacred powers – and then delivered the corpse to a garbage dump, and he has an untroubled conscience still. His revanchist passions – and, together with his, his upper-crust neighbours’, too – fully define the world Ghasiram inhabits. This is the bitterly ironic tone on which Sadgati closes. No wonder the Hindutvawadi commentator is not effusive in his praise of the film or its maker.

And remarkably, Sadgati does not limit itself to only undermining the spirit of the ancien regime. It also contains a hint of frank, active dissent, exemplified by the Gond man who first tries to convince Dukhi he is being outrageously exploited; when Dukhi is dead, he makes sure that the lowly chamars, who are typically tasked with disposing of the dead in the village, defy the Brahmin and stay well away from Dukhi’s body, despite Ghasiram’s requests for help. Even the Brahmin’s own young son – to whom the father proudly referred in his pious homily on life and death delivered for the benefit of his two guests – is shown to be stunned by Dukhi’s death. Clearly, the child is appalled that it was his father who had brought that senseless death about. For someone who cheerily holds forth on the perpetuity of societal exploitation – “Exploitation…will be here till last living thing present on earth (sic)”— such exemplars of defiance, or even of plain qualms, must be hard to swallow.

Sadgati is all of 50 minutes long, but that it manages to pack so much power into those 50 minutes is due to the unrelenting intensity of its tone. At times, this intensity is so overpowering that you catch yourself involuntarily looking away from the screen. For example, when Dukhi hacks away apoplectically at that monstrous block of wood without making the slightest difference to its hulk, his face contorted in rage and utter desperation. Or when a devastated Jhuria, sobbing loudly, inconsolably, pounds with her bare hands on the Brahmin’s door over and over again, demanding answers from Ghasiram, who cowers inside, even as thick rain falls steadily from a sombre sky.

A still from ‘Sadgati’.

But however grim the Sadgati narrative may be – and, without a doubt, it is the grimmest in the entire Ray oeuvre – it is yet leavened with gentle humour now and then. This is the kind of refreshing, unselfconscious humour that one comes across in all great Ray movies, regardless of their differences in genre. (And this is an element entirely missing from his last few films when, his mobility seriously compromised by his failing health, Ray was clearly past his prime.) Dukhi asks his wife to ‘recite’ the grocery shopping list that he has just asked Jhuria to memorise – and she fumbles, to Dukhi’s exasperation. Sometime later, Jhuria unloads the same list on the village grocer – and, in trying to remember the items, he fumbles exactly as Jhuria had done in the first place. The irony is not lost on the simple Jhuria, who now breaks out into a ringing laugh.

Also read: Satyajit Ray’s ‘Devi’: When It Was Still Possible To Interrogate the Primacy of Faith

A still from ‘Sadgati’.

Then there is sprightly little Dhania, the girl whose intended marriage launched the story, who animates the plot like a whiff of fresh air as she skips happily about her humble family home or plays at her solo games in the courtyard. However brief or unilinear the film’s narrative may be, Ray refuses to be tethered to perspectives of unredeemed blackness or gloom. The only way he has taught himself to look at life is in the round, and in this, his last great film, a profoundly disquieting theme – that religious fanaticism dehumanises both its victims and its overzealous champions – yet fails to upend Ray’s artistic integrity.

Ray recognised that Sadgati was an angry film, angrier than anything else he had created. This, of course, is not the kind of anger that finds release in a violent explosion. Rather, it is anger that pulsates like a fully-stretched bow-string, taut, determined and quivering. There is no mistaking the anger that breathes through Sadgati’s picture frames, but the sweep of that anger takes in much more than a mere individual fanatic, in this case the priest Gasiram. Indeed, Sadgati’s message is so compelling because Ray manages to show the banality of religious (in this case, hardcore Hindu) fundamentalism. And it is this cutting sense of banality – prosaic yet deadly – enveloping the world of Ghasiram which so miffs the bigot, the self-appointed custodian of the faith.

In India over the past several years, this bigot, this always-full-of-himself custodian of ‘purity’, has convinced himself that he is free to privilege what he believes is the kernel of his faith over everything else; that faith – at any rate, his faith – is not accountable to reason or science, or even common sense; that constitutional or civic rights may be adorable concepts – but only as long as their paths do not cross faith’s. Sadgati, on the other hand, posits that we cease being human unless we are willing and able to interrogate faith. No wonder the Hindutvawadi is not amused.

Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected]